My New Year's Resolution: Mastering Mandolin


My story is probably similar to many other stories out there. I started on the violin and was exposed to "fiddle" music at an early age. My family would go to square dances in Maine each summer, and because my father didn't like to dance, my mother would take me out on the dance floor and teach me the moves: how to waltz, dance a reel, a jig, a hornpipe. And I remember watching the fiddler on stage, how happy he looked as he played music for the dancers. I remember telling myself that I would do that some day. I was about 8 or 9. Years later, some High School buddies and I formed a little contradance band consisting of piano, hammer dulcimer and fiddle. We played for dances in Acton, Marlborough, Concord, Lincoln, Weston, Wayland and Wellesley. Years later, I met some guys hanging out in the quad at college who were playing country music together. They asked me to join them on the fiddle. We called our little group, Pieces of Neck, because we all played on wooden pieces of neck! Catchy, eh?


Greg Highlands was the leader of our little sextet, on guitar and vocals. Match Atkinson also played guitar, a 4 string tenor, and sang harmony. Sarah Lawson played bass and added an alto harmony to the mix. I played fiddle and sang tenor. Scott Cornwall played the 5 string banjo, and rounding out the group was Owen Bradley on the mandolin. Owen's playing style was closer to jazz in the sense that he preferred to play tremolo on single strings rather than chop rhythm chords in the background until it was his time to solo. Owen had a beautiful A-style Gibson mandolin. He was from Palo Alto, California.


The second year at college when I came back in September, Greg Highlands and Scott Cornwall had left the band. In fact, they had dropped out of college entirely. Match and I went down to NYC to see Scott early in the semester when it was still hot out. We played together on the steps of the Science Museum and in Central Park. Scott said he wasn't coming home. Back at Hampshire, we decided to change the name of the group. We asked Jim Henry, Sarah's boyfriend at the time, to join us on guitar. The new name was The Lonesome Fish Quintet. There's a story about the name that I find funny even to this day.


Scott Cornwall was a good banjo player. He was innovative, trying out common bluegrass tunes in different modes, or removing parts and adding others. One day he came to rehearsal with a tune he called the Lonesome Fish. We asked him why he chose that name. He said because the fish was lonesome for the "C". The tune essentially was Foggy Mountain Breakdown without the C chord. I guess you had to be there.

It's lonesome for the C

Anyway, we named the band after Scott and tagged it with Quintet as we all were great fans of the David Grisman Quintet. At the time, Grisman would come perform at the Iron Horse Cafe each year. We saw him at Berklee College and went back stage to chat with him and Mike Marshall, smoke some weed, and hang out.


Here's a link to some of the recordings from The Lonesome Fish Quintet with Jim Henry


These bands were prolific. We performed for every party that year. The "Tavern", one of the dining areas on campus, often held parties and sold pitchers of beer. We played and people danced and drank. It got pretty wild. At the end of the semester, the college put on a huge party down the street called "Southern Exposure" where they would roast several pigs, tap several kegs of beer and dance all night to bluegrass music. Our band always was the highlight of the evening.


The 2nd summer I worked at the college, so I was around to play music in the evenings. I played with a banjoist named Dan Wolfson, and Jim Henry who also had a local job. By then I had begun teaching myself how to play the mandolin. Here's a picture o

Jim, Adam, Dan

f the 3 of us playing together that summer.


The following semester, we began to call ourselves "Backwoods Medicine". We added Alan Lasky on electric bass. Jim Henry was older than the rest of us. He graduated soon after, so we asked Tom Hanway to join us on guitar. Dan was pre-med, hence the "medicine" part of the name.


We played mostly old time tunes: Wreck of the Old 97, Blue Moon of Kentucky, John Hardy, Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms, New River Train. We were asked to come back for Southern Exposure that Spring.


Dan graduated the summer of '84, and went on to medical school while Alan, Tom and I were still in school. We changed up the format a little, playing more styles of music that Tom liked: western swing, acoustic country, blues, etc. We changed the band name to Pig and the Idiot. I don't remember why. No matter, because by then, I was taking mandolin lessons from anybody who would teach me. I learned the right way to hold the instrument, left and right hand positions, how to leave fingers down, how to play and more importantly, practice, chords. I practiced every day, sometimes 2 or even 3 hours.

Maple Ridge

After college, I took a break from the violin so I could concentrate on the mandolin and guitar. One day, while trying out the mandolins at Downtown Sounds in Northampton, I was approached by the owner, Joe Blumenthal, who handed me the business card for a dobro player he knew who apparently was looking to hire a mandolin and fiddle player for his bluegrass band. He wanted to know if I could come to an audition that Thursday night in Greenfield. This was October or November of 1989. I said sure and made a point to be on time. The band was called Maple Ridge, and consisted of Terry Atkinson on guitar and vocals, John Rough on banjo and vocals, Joe Blumenthal on bass and a guy they called "Bubba" on dobro. They liked me and asked me to stay. Bubba left the band after a few months, eventually moving south.


Maple Ridge performed everywhere: festivals, parties, weddings, outdoor events, grand openings, heck we even performed on a river boat! Our first Album was finished in '95, recorded at Signature Sounds in Palmer, and produced at a professional studio in Nashville. Here's a link to that recording. The band continued to play together, but because of my new job as sales manager for a company, I was required to travel a lot and couldn't always attend events. The band often hired Jim Armenti, of The Lonesome Brothers fame, to sit in for me when I couldn't be there, and Bob Dick on bass when Joe couldn't make it. At one point, John couldn't make it, so Terry and I hired Jim and Bob for a wedding in NH. Bluegrass is an incestuous world...probably because of its roots in Appalachian music (just kidding!).

Fiddle Hill in Egypt, 1999

Klezmer musicians are a lot like bluegrass musicians. They learn to play each other's music. Joe had taught me many Klezmer tunes over the years, so when Jim Armenti had another engagement, Joe asked me to sit in on his part at a gig at the Northampton Brewery on fiddle and mandolin. There, I met another man who was also sitting in on piano and trombone. His name was Brian Bender. During the break, we sat at a table and talked. It turns out he had just completed a degree at NECM in Klezmer music. He encouraged me to "follow my roots" back to Ireland to learn more about my own ancestral music. We formed a duo together we called Sweet Blend, initially, and eventually we settled on Fiddle Hill. We played mostly for contradances. In 1999, we were hired to play at a world music festival in front of the Great Pyramids and Sphynx in Giza, Egypt. The name of the event was Drums Around The World. I have lots of pictures, maybe I'll post them someday. Brian and I performed Klezmer and Celtic music for six days in Egypt. It was a privilege. Back home, we set up the Northampton Contradance 3rd Sundays in the 3rd floor ballroom above Fitzwilly's on Main St. We invited callers from all over New England to join us, and musicians too. That's where I met Chris Hayes, Diane Sanabria and Paul Burton, who would later join me and some friends in a Celtic band called Woodkerne, and my cousin Ralph Sweet, who would introduce me to Maire Doherty, an Irish Set Dancer from Kilfenora, who invited me and my wife to join her that following summer at her B&B, play in the pub every night, and attend the Ceilidh dancing on Thursdays. We accepted her offer, and, in the summer of 1996, I found myself in Ireland.

Swift River Bluegrass

In 1997, I was asked to join a startup bluegrass band that was working on originals from Holyoke. The band consisted of Claiborne Woodall, guitar; Bruce, bass; John Rough, banjo; and me on the mandolin. Most of our gigs were in Vermont and Boston. We played for a few weddings and parties, and even made a professional album at Blue Moon studio in Springfield before Claiborne graduated and moved to North Carolina. Here's a link to that album.


The rest of '97 and '98 were in promoting my new Celtic band, Woodkerne. With Paul Burton on guitar, John Rough on banjo, Dan Richardson on bodhran and concertina, and me on fiddle and bouzouki. Here's a link to our first album. Dan left the band due to an illness in '99 and Andy Weiner, a man I'd met at a Scottish dance in Connecticut, on bodhran. Paul left the band in '03 to move to California. John and I met a man at an Irish seisun in Amherst named Jim Bunting. We asked him to audition for the band. He joined us in 2004, and in 2006, Jim and I formed a little duo consisting of guitar/bouzouki and fiddle for weddings and parties called Celticado. Here's a link to some professionally mastered recordings at a studio in West Springfield called Rotary Records.


Woodkerne officially disbanded in 2009, but Celticado continued, performing for dozens of weddings and parties, concerts and other events right up until COVID19 struck in 2020. In 2016, we were joined by Claudine Langille, a professional multi-instrumentalist and vocalist. Claudine had played in a band called Touchstone with Michael O'Domnaill and his sister Triona. When that band broke up, Michael and Triona joined Nightnoise in Seattle on the Windham Hill label. Claudine and her husband own a professional recording studio in Vermont. Many celtic musicians and bands that you know have recorded there. Below is a video of Claudine, Jim and I performing "Dirty Old Town" in Holyoke the winter of 2017:



Claudine settled in and the trio quickly became a much in demand wedding group. We played for weddings in Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, all over Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. I played mostly fiddle, but I could be encouraged to play some mandolin too. Here's a video of us playing a group of Quebecois tunes:


Here's another set we liked to play. We call it A Blast O Reels:



I've invested most of my adult life in learning to play the mandolin (and fiddle). Clearly, this is a substantial effort. While others from my lifetime have mastered computer coding, or foreign languages, joined politics and become leaders, I have spent this time learning the intricacies of the mandolin. In 2012, one of the groups I taught at my studio formed the beginnings of Mandolin New England, our 501c3 nonprofit mandolin orchestra. Our first concert together was at the South Hadley Town Hall in 2015. We performed, among other things, the Bach Brandenburg Concerto No.3, which we had been working on almost daily for all of 2014. Here's a video of part of that concert with Josh Bell conducting.



Mandolin New England is comprised of mandolinists from all over the region. We have players from New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine. Find out more about the organization here, where you can join if you play (it's free!) and support if you like with your donations. At one time, mandolin orchestras were an important aspect of New England life. There were orchestras in every college, every city had one. Holyoke especially was a hotbed of mandolin music. Springfield College, Mt Holyoke and even Amherst College had orchestras. Some day I hope they come back to popularity.


So finally, here's my 2021 New Year's resolution: to continue to work on the mandolin, to offer quality mandolin lessons and workshops for my students, and to bring the joy of mandolin playing to social media!

 

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